Words like “coverage” and “reliability” get thrown around a lot in the cell phone world. When you put those claims to the test, though, Verizon’s the best provider for getting all the calls, texts, and data you need, whether you’re in the city or out in rural areas.
AT&T and T-Mobile put up a good fight for the next spot, but AT&T pulls ahead—it’s better for rural areas. City dwellers will do just fine with T-Mobile (and you’d get faster speeds too). Sprint rounds off our list, but it may be the best option for someone looking for a less expensive way to get wireless coverage nationwide, especially in cities.1,2
Best cell phone coverage by carrier
- Verizon: Best for most
- AT&T: Best for TV fans
- T-Mobile: Best for high speeds
- Sprint: Best on a budget
Cell phone provider plans
There are tons of wireless providers out there, but which one is the best for you? The last thing you want is to pay for features you won’t even use. Don’t waste your money on a wireless provider that doesn’t give you what you’re looking for.
Verizon: Best overall
Verizon’s coverage is virtually everywhere from horizon to horizon.
Verizon has not only the best 4G LTE coverage in all 50 states, but it’s also consistently fast, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding tonight’s restaurant, uploading Instagram stories, or using Google to win an argument.1
We can’t promise you won’t run into any dead spots, but you’re a lot less likely to encounter problems pretty much anywhere you go.
Verizon unlimited plans and prices
Who is Verizon best for?
- Those concerned about rural coverage
- Business travelers
- Rural, suburban, and city users alike
Verizon is typically more expensive than the other three big carriers, but if you’re seeking the best coverage, it may be worth the extra moolah to make sure your calls go through. How many horror movies could’ve been prevented with good cell phone coverage? Just saying.
Check out Verizon’s availability map for yourself. Or if you want more information about Verizon, read our full review.
AT&T Wireless: Best for TV fans
AT&T’s coverage is solid, and it’s a less expensive option with decent TV benefits included.
AT&T isn’t far behind Verizon in terms of coverage, but it doesn’t quite beat T-Mobile for speed.1
Here’s a good way to think of it: AT&T will cover you most of the time and you’ll pay slightly less than with Verizon. Plus, AT&T does have perks for streaming, like free data for DIRECTV NOW. You’ll be happy to have that in your back pocket when you’re bored on the train.
AT&T unlimited plans and prices
Who is AT&T best for?
- TV fans
- Those who don’t want to pay Verizon’s price, but still need similar coverage
- Some rural users, but mostly suburban and city users
Most of the country is covered, but you should still look at AT&T’s coverage map. For a better idea of AT&T’s cell phone plans, read our full review.
T-Mobile: Best for high speeds
Straightforward pricing and fast speeds make T-Mobile a solid, less expensive option.
T-Mobile’s coverage might not get you through some of the more rural parts of the country . . . but for the most part, you’ll enjoy fast speeds for a reasonable price. (It’s ranked second-fastest, right behind Verizon.)1,2
T-Mobile doesn’t throttle your speeds until after you use 50 GB of data, meaning you can stream music, movies, and download apps to your heart’s content.
T-Mobile unlimited plans and prices
Who is T-Mobile best for?
- Suburban and city dwellers (rural areas may experience more outages)
- People who want fast speeds
- People who want or need 50 GB of unthrottled data
While we’d still say AT&T offers slightly better perks and coverage, T-Mobile gives it a good run for its money. T-Mobile includes Netflix (with unlimited plans over two lines), mobile hotspot data, and in-flight Wi-Fi on GoGo®-enabled flights.
T-Mobile should work for most people outside of rural areas, but you can see for yourself on the coverage map. Or if you’d like to dig more into T-Mobile’s cell phone benefits, read our full review.
Sprint: Best on a budget
Sprint’s cheap prices may be just what you need—but its coverage, speed, and performance are lacking.
Sprint has some of the best prices for cell phone plans, and they’re better now that the Unlimited Plus plan also gets you Hulu and Tidal subscriptions bundled in. Here we come, Beyonce!
TV, music, and cell phone service on the cheap is a good way to go, especially for people trying to consolidate their finances to save up for cars, houses, and Elon Musk’s flamethrowers. (What, we’re the only ones doing that?) You won’t have as good of coverage as you would with Verizon, but you’ll save a bunch of bucks.
The downside is the poor coverage1. You’ll notice a drop in bars if you go to any rural area, so you’ll need to keep that in mind.
Sprint unlimited plans and prices
What does coverage mean to you?
Additional cell phone carrier options
If these four options have burned you in the past and you want to try something totally new, consider trying Metro by T-Mobile (formerly Metro PCS), Cricket Wireless, Total Wireless, Google Fi, or even Tracfone.
These companies often use the Big Four’s cell towers, so you’ll generally still have good coverage, but you’ll be dealing with a different company and what it has to offer.
Best wireless alternatives
Why availability matters
If New York City has perfect coverage, it doesn’t matter much to the folks in Durango, Colorado. We can’t stress this enough: check coverage maps for the places you need service the most.
Where do you need voice and data coverage?
Basically, the better the coverage nationwide, the less you’ll have to think about whether you have coverage or not. Most phone calls or texts aren’t life or death (but some are), but the last thing we want to worry about is if our call will even go through.
- Home: You don’t want to rely strictly on your home phone (if you have one) or on your home Wi-Fi network to get timely or important messages.
- Work: You definitely need a reliable data connection for work—whether it’s for phone meetings, telecommuting, video conferences, or, y’know, browsing dank memes.
- School: Need to email a professor asking for an extension? With a good connection, you won’t have to blame your tardy turn-ins on your cell phone.
- Commute: What’s better than listening to podcasts about conspiracy theories or murder? Nothing—so you’ll want coverage even on the road.
- Restaurants: Do you eat out downtown more than out in the country? Or do you regularly take drives into the mountains for dinner with a view? Either way, you need good data to Instagram your dinner.
- Nightlife: Don’t drink and drive—make sure you can call a Lyft at 2 a.m. from your local watering holes and dance clubs. You don’t want to walk five miles in those heels at the end of a long night of getting jiggy with it.
- Outdoor excursions: You ever been stuck on a mountain without service? You need coverage there too—not only so you can upload your epic selfie, but also because it’s much safer to have backup.
- Family in other areas: You may have great coverage at your home, but if you’re visiting Aunt Tina while she’s hosting a BBQ in the country, you may need to call the kids and have them pick up some extra moist towelettes before they arrive. (Trust us, they are a must.)
- Business travel: Having no service when you’re in airplane mode is one thing, but you don’t want to lose out on a new deal because you can’t Facetime with a client.
When coverage matters, price is less of a priority
If you pick the provider with the best coverage (Verizon) you have to cope with its higher-than-average price. In other words, you pay for what you get and you get what you pay for.
Conversely, Sprint offers a good deal on its unlimited plans, which include TV and music subscriptions bundled in, but your coverage will definitely suffer.
Better network coverage is one of most people’s top considerations for switching providers, but money is still a strong factor. If you’re mostly connected to Wi-Fi throughout your day or you just don’t use your phone that much, and you don’t live in a rural area, then it’s less important to get the best coverage, but it’s still something to think about.
How has your experience been with these providers? Any horror stories or tales of redemption? Let us know in the comments below!